Art,  Fiction,  Issue 7

C-A-G-E-D by Nancy Brewka-Clark

Garden Orchid by Wendy Lou Lou Schmidt

Mark crouched down in his usual spot behind the big rock and uncoiled the microphone cord. The battery-operated tape recorder was a big clumsy box of a thing, an ancient reel-to-reel that had belonged to his grandfather. But he could manipulate the knobs with his damaged hands. That was the important thing.

Once the machine was in place, he risked a peek toward the house. Soon those French doors would open and his beautiful girl would step out onto the terrace, the sunlight dancing on her silver flute. Although he didn’t know her name, in his mind he called her Melody. He called the old lady Screech because not only did she look and sound like an owl but she was up until all hours of the night, just like him. 

That was how he’d first been drawn to the place, by seeing the light through the trees.  For the last ten years the Victorian house with its peeling gingerbread trim and leaky shingled turrets had stood empty. Seeing that bright glow in the window, he feared that at long last squatters had broken in and set a fire. When the light remained steady until it winked off, he knew someone was bringing the house back to life. That would be even worse than total destruction. Ever since his parents had died in the car crash his sophomore year at the conservatory, he hadn’t had any use for the outside world.  His hands had been crippled, but his love of music had only grown, keeping him company and providing solace in the darkness.

He returned the next afternoon, stopping at the edge of the woodland like a young buck weighing the threatening presence of humans.  In daylight he could see how much work had already been done. But no amount of money could make that old pile attractive. Then he’d heard the flute part of Chopin’s “Variations on a Theme by Rossini” coming from  the terrace and circled the house through the woods to discover his soulmate. 

Lately he felt as if he could summon Melody just by desiring her, as if heart actually could call to heart. Soon he’d find a way to take her away. Because his hands were too scarred now to stretch an octave, he’d never be able to accompany her, but that wouldn’t matter. He would listen, and he would hear—that’s what mattered to someone with Melody’s genius. 

Finally the French doors opened. For a rare moment Melody stood there alone, framed in the doorway. Slowly her eyes moved across the lawn and into the woods. His pulse doubled. She was looking for him. At last she knew; she understood. 

Just as he was about to jump to his feet, Screech appeared at her shoulder. Painfully he pressed himself against the lichened boulder, praying those owl eyes hadn’t caught sight of him. After a tortuous interval, the first delicate notes of Mozart’s “Flute Concerto No. 1 in G Major” floated toward him and he allowed himself the luxury of tears. He wept not in sorrow or in longing but in gratitude for having found his Melody, so beautiful, and so alone, like him.

***

When Mark awoke the next morning, it was pouring. She’d never be out there playing in a deluge like this.  He spent the next hours in agony. At two o’clock the great gray cloud ceiling cracked like a dusty mirror. By two-thirty he was behind the rock, the big old tape recorder with its powerful microphone ready to pick up every precious note. 

A few minutes after he settled down, Melody stepped out onto the terrace. Once again her gaze swept across the neat expanse of lawn and into the woodland. Peering out with one eye from behind the rock, he was certain she was staring straight at him. Screech was nowhere in sight. Perhaps she was in one of those attic windows with a pair of binoculars, the suspicious old bird. 

Just as his heart began to pound with the imagined terror of being caught by the police, Screech came out. She said something that he couldn’t hear, but whatever it was, it made Melody frown and shake her head, her long black hair glinting in the sunlight. When the old lady turned away, Melody stuck out  her tongue and then laughed but Screech didn’t appear to notice.

As the first notes floated into the woods he sank back against the rock, frowning in puzzled concentration.  He was just as baffled a full minute later.  It was such a simple melody, no sharps, no flats, played in the key of C. The notes of a full octave ran C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C and she was using all the notes, but she was playing so fast! Whoever the composer was, the piece would open new worlds for him. Someday soon they’d explore these worlds together, but for now it was enough to just to listen and marvel.

Abruptly, Melody removed the flute from her lips. With a toss of that silken hair, she stared straight at the rock, turned and vanished inside with Screech at her heels. Staring at the French doors, shut now, he willed her to return.  When she didn’t, he thought his heart would break.

After he got home, things went from terrible to unbearable. He had to possess every composition Melody played, ordering it on the rare occasion when he didn’t already own it. But when he played the tape into the audio ID app on his  computer, there was no match. Listening to the hiss of the ancient tape, he decided that there was only one thing to do.

***

He sat nervously at the Steinway concert grand. There was no one to hear him, but that didn’t matter. He dreaded hearing himself playing like a toddler. Finally he raised his hand, willing himself to peck away at the keyboard with his left pinky, the only finger that had survived the crash unscathed.  Sitting there with Melody’s unknown song running through his head, he realized he’d stopped thinking about his parents. Was it possible that in his heart he’d actually forgiven them both, his father for driving drunk and his mother for not stopping him? If so, it was because his love for Melody had healed him. 

Smiling, he turned on the ancient tape recorder and slowed the tape down a bit. Hitting the piano keys one by one as the  melody unspooled, he stopped after the first seven notes.  

B-A-D-D-E-E-D.

He stared down at the keyboard. 

Could it be a coincidence?  

He ran the next section of tape.

B-A-G-C-A-G-E-D-B-A-B-E.

“Bag caged babe,” he whispered. 

Yes, Melody was a babe, and Screech certainly was an old bag. He’d cracked the code! Hands trembling almost uncontrollably, he picked out the next notes. 

B-A-G-D-E-F-A-C-E-D-B-A-B-E.

What could it mean? He stopped the tape and sat deep in thought. Certainly she hadn’t been physically defaced. But psychic wounds were just as painful. He decided that Melody felt demeaned because the old witch was holding her prisoner.  

B-A-B-E-B-E-G-G-E-D-B-A-G.

She’d tried pleading with her for her freedom, to no avail.

B-A-G-D-E-A-F.

But Screech—no puzzle here—ignored her plea for freedom. 

B-A-B-E-G-A-B-B-A-B-E-D-E-A-D.

The final notes confused him until he recognized the old-fashioned word ‘gab.’ There was no mystery here. If she talked about her imprisonment, the old woman would do her bodily harm. His beloved Melody had issued  a desperate plea for her life.

***

When the French doors opened, Screech came out first. She looked more owlish than usual, her short brown hair streaked with gray standing up just like feathers, her yellow nose more beaked, her beady eyes sunken in dark circles. This time it was Screech who surveyed the woods with those predator’s eyes. When she raised her shoulders in a slow and eloquent shrug, he expected her to take off and swoop down on him and instinctively crouched lower.

“No!” At the sound of Melody’s voice, he peered around the rock. Her cheeks were red and her eyes flashed fire. As he watched, she stamped her foot, shaking her head so vigorously the black silken hair shivered like flowing water. “No, Nana.”

So, Screech was her grandmother. He was pondering the ramifications of that when he heard a slap and then a shriek of pure anguish. “Stop it, Nana!”

The old lady had a fistful of Melody’s hair and was pulling it with all her might. “Why aren’t you concentrating on your music, you lazy girl?”

Jumping to his feet, he ran toward the terrace. Melody, flailing both arms, screamed at the top of her lungs, whether at the sight of him or the pain he couldn’t be sure.  Coming up behind Screech, he pawed at her shoulder, furious with himself when the scarred fingers refused to clutch her and tear her away from Melody. “Let her go!”

At his touch, the old woman went stiff.  Letting go of Melody’s hair, she spun around. Hissing wordlessly, claws extended, she sprang for his eyes. He had no choice but to push her. A white metal chair broke her fall, but somehow she still managed to end up flat on her back. Her head lifted up like a flipped turtle’s, beady eyes bright with malice. “So, he’s the reason you’ve gone off your music, you silly little slut. And you, whoever you are, you’ll pay!” 

When she began to roll onto her side,  Mark knew she still had plenty of fight left in her. “Come on.” Hooking his arm through Melody’s, he began dragging her across the terrace. “Run.”

“No.” Melody struggled desperately to dig in her heels. “I can’t.” When he tugged harder, she shrieked, “Don’t you understand? I’ll die!”

 “Why would you—” 

He felt the electric shock almost as soon as she did, but with a fraction of the force. Melody’s face went white, her head tilted back and for an instant she became a dead weight as he towed her over the edge of the patio and onto the grass. “Melody, my precious Melody,” he panted, half sobbing with pain and terror, “you can’t be dead.”

For an instant she looked up at him through fluttering lids—and then smiled a shaky smile. “I’m—I’m not, am I?”

He bent and kissed her. “No.” He looked up just in time to see Screech get to her knees. “We have to go.”

***

When they reached the rock, he pulled Melody down beside him. “Before they arrest me, I want you to know how much I love you.”

“She won’t call the police.” Melody tugged down the neck of her pale yellow sweater. “Look.” He stared at the plastic box attached to the buckled leather strip. “She told me that if I ever tried to leave the house, it would kill me. She said I wouldn’t even know. That it would be just like being struck by lightning.”

“Your grandmother made you wear a dog collar for an invisible fence?” He gaped at her. “What kind of a person is she?”

Melody’s faced grew thoughtful. “I don’t really know.” She turned to him. “I don’t know many people, so I have no way to compare. We’ve lived all over the world but we never stay anywhere long enough for me to make friends. She wants me to be a great musician, even greater than she was before she started losing her voice.”  

“Do you want that, too?”

She looked at him sideways. “Yes. But I also want to love and be loved.” He went to touch her cheek, then pulled back his hand. She grasped it, whispering, “No. Let me see.” After a long moment, she looked from the scars into his eyes. “Did you ever play an instrument?”

“Piano.” He paused. “In a way, we’ve lived the same lives. My parents had great expectations for me, too. But the car crash ended all that.”

“Nana says that when my parents died—it was a plane crash—she knew that she wasn’t meant to be the star but the firmament against which my star would shine.”

“That makes her sound almost decent.” Suddenly he was at a loss. “Do you love her?”

She gaped at him. “Seriously?”

“Yes, I’m serious.” He felt near to tears. “Loving someone changes you.”

She smiled. “You said you love me.”

“I do. I always have, from the moment I heard you.” 

“You rescued me.” She leaned her head on his shoulder. “I owe you my life.”

Panic rose in him. “I don’t want you to feel you owe me anything.” After a pause that left a crushing weight on his heart, he whispered, “So, what do you want to do?” 

She hummed three notes. “B-E-D.”

And his heart burst into song. 

____________________________________________________________

Nancy Brewka-Clark began her writing career as features editor for a  daily newspaper chain on Boston’s North Shore. Her poems, short stories, drama, and nonfiction have appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies published by Red Hen Press, University of Iowa Press, Southeast Missouri State University Press, Smith and Kraus, FunDead Publications of Salem, YouthPLAYS of Los Angeles, and Routledge. She is the 2019 winner of the Amy Lowell Poetry Prize. Her debut poetry collection Beautiful Corpus will be published by Kelsay Books in June 2020.

Wendy Lou Lou Schmidt has been writing short stories, essays and poetry for the last twelve years.  She is also a mixed media artist. Written pieces have been published in Chicago Literati, City Lake Poets, Literary Hatchet, Moon Magazine and Rebelle Society to name a few. Art pieces have been published in Rat’s Ass Review, Three Drops From A Cauldron, The Horror Zine, Young Ravens Review and Still Point Gallery. 

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